Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Waking Myself Up

 "Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, 
and you never got your memoir or novel written . . . or you were 
just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you 
forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical 
silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? 
It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. " 
~ Annie Lamott

 "What do you want to do this year?" Mike asked me the day after I received the Fulbright decision two weeks ago.  I didn't answer.  "Maybe we can drive around the west and see some places out here," he continued. 

God love him. I know he was trying to get my mind off of the fact that I wouldn't be teaching in Denmark this fall, but . . . Well, let me put it this way: Driving around the western United States is not on my radar for the fall, nor for anytime in the near (meaning next five-to-ten years) future. 

"I intend to go to Italy this year," I finally almost whispered.  He replied with his most practical argument as to why it might be a good idea that I wait another year or so. I wasn't buying. "I knew you were going to say that, but I worked myself to death so I could live there this year. I am going to do it while I can. I don't want to end up even angrier with myself for not doing it."

The truth of the matter is that I am quite angry with myself for waiting so long to do what I love. I let one stupid person's comment years ago stop me in my tracks, and I listened more to the negative voices than I did to the encouraging ones.  I stayed on the mesa when I should have parachuted from the ridges.  That is no one's fault but mine.

Please don't get me wrong. I don't regret being a wife and mother. I love being both, and I love my two guys. What I do hate is the fact that I did not do more during the time the three of us were growing. I did not take chances to write...chances to teach.... chances to get out of the cocoon I wove around me. What, I often silently scream at myself, have you done with your life? What? What?

I think a lot about my beloved grandmother these days. A mere girl of 21, she left the only life she knew and traveled to this strange land. She had $7 in her pocket. The black and white drudgery of her life – the illiteracy, the poverty, the backbreaking work, the abuse, the babies, the sacrifices – haunts me.  I can’t imagine growing up without a mother, marrying a man I barely know, moving to a land where I cannot understand most of its people, learning a foreign language to survive, losing three young children yet raising eight more, and living 85 years and not being able to read or to write more than an “X” on a sheet of paper.  The enormity, the courage, of what my grandmother did to give her children and grandchildren opportunities that she’d never realize, overwhelms me. 

Mike and I talk about this a lot, and I thank God he is as understanding as he is.  Most men would probably not put up with my craziness.  He's now encouraging me to look at options, and I am.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this:  I don't know what Grams would want me to do, but I feel an obligation to repay her spirit. I think in doing so, I'm going to take care of myself, too.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Playing With Fire, II

The correfoc
 "Almost nobody dances sober, 
unless they happen to be insane.”
~ HP Lovecraft

When last I left you, Mike and I were on our way back to our hotel after watching a fireworks display that did not include guys running down the beach while swinging lighted torches over the heads of those crowded around.  As we neared Las Ramblas, we heard screaming and shouting, and we smelled sulfur.  Mike thought we had happened upon more fireworks.

We rounded a corner and almost bumped into one of the devil bands we had seen earlier. Thousands of sparks flashed against the night sky. As far up the street as we could see, waves of twinkling bursts exploded from “pitchforks” the devil-clad dancers swung over the heads of the jubilant partiers who pranced down the street with them in time to the pounding percussion. It was a parade of organized pandemonium, and we had stumbled into the middle of it all.

“Those aren’t fireworks!” I was ecstatic. “They’re the fire runners!”

(Allow me to explain that the Catalan tradition of the fire runners goes back to the 12th century. In celebrating the marriage of the Count of Barcelona to the Princess of Aragon, actors entertained the newlyweds with a theatrical battle between good and evil, darkness and light. The traditional battle passed from one generation to another until, deemed too regional by Franco, it was outlawed after the Spanish Civil War.

Shortly before Franco’s death, the tradition started to re-emerge, but with significant changes. Various neighborhoods, each with its own band, started to compete against each other.  The devils, now festive and comical instead of evil, involve the crowd in their antics, skipping and dancing along the street while swirling their pitchforks laden with huge, flaming sparklers above the crowd . . . fire running . . . correfoc.)

I could not breathe. Part of it was the excitement of having stumbled on the correfoc, and part of it was due to the fact that there was so much smoke in the air. Via Laietana is not very wide, and the buildings, though only three or four stories tall, are very close together. There was no breeze, so the smoke from the matches and the sparklers just hung low in the air.

Eager to join in the festivities, Michael tried to pull me into the middle of the street where groups of devils were twirling their forks while the crowd shouted and danced underneath. The devils were swinging pitchforks laden with white-hot sparklers. We were both wearing shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and no hats . . . not a good combination, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure if the thumping I heard came from devil drummers or my own heart. Face it.  I'm a wuss. Panicked, I ran for the sidewalk.

“I don’t want to get burned!” I shrieked as a devil leaped after me, swinging his pitchfork in my direction. I screamed again and jumped into a doorway much to the amusement of the two inebriated college students who were enjoying their cervezas as well as the spectacle before them as they lounged against the building. They assured me that the devil wouldn’t set me on fire.

“Just yell, ‘¡Agua!’” one of the two said, pointing to a group of people standing on an apartment balcony above us. Buckets – presumably full of water – sat on the floor.  I grabbed for Mike, who had followed me to the doorway, and watched over his shoulder at the merriment exploding all around us.

After a few minutes, Michael and I continued to walk against the crowd up Via Laietana, dancing across the street at one point when the devils and their flaming pitchforks were at what I deemed was a safe distance. We stopped to watch. A dragon spewing fire (sparklers) bobbed by us. A devil skipping in our direction suddenly found his pitchfork black. Band members quickly loaded it up with more sparklers and lit them. He bounced down the street accompanied by a delighted group of festival goers, and we skipped back across the street in their wake.  

We were almost to the cathedral plaça where the correfoc had started when it seemed as though all of the pitchforks went black at once, and the drumming gradually stopped. The devils and dragons vanished into the shadows, and the crowds dispersed. A fire truck from the city of Barcelona slowly traversed the street, spraying water to put out the remnants of the smoldering sparklers. Behind the fire truck, city workers walked the seven blocks, scooping up the spent sparkler carcasses. The 2007 correfoc was over.

“I would have been mad if we had missed that,” Mike said, breaking the silence.  I didn’t want to tell him that, had we missed it, he wouldn’t have known what we missed, so he couldn’t have been mad.

I just smiled.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Playing With Fire, Part I

Rather than go into a long explanation of the languages of Spain, allow me to begin this post by reiterating the fact that the people of Catalunya speak Catalan, and Catalan is not Spanish.  Catalan is still a romance language, and to my mind, it is a mix of Spanish and French.

So it was on our first night in Barcelona, we sat drinking sangria at a cafe on Las Ramblas while I tried to read the Mercé program which was, of course, in Catalan.  I was trying to find one of the events I really wanted to see.  Since I hadn't remembered to write down any information about it, all I could remember was that people were going to run around swinging huge torches over the heads of the crowd. 

"Can you understand any of that?" Mike asked me.

"Enough to know that I don't see anything resembling fuego (fire)," I sighed.  I motioned to a waiter and asked, "¿Dónde están los fuegos?"  He looked at me sideways.

"No sé," he replied and quickly walked away.  Everyone I asked had the same reaction, and in retrospect, since I was asking them where the fires were, their confusion was understandable.

The next night, the hotel's Brazilian desk clerk, Alejandro, told me he had found los fuegos for me.  "They are on the beach. You must go to Barceloneta.  Be there by 20:00 (8 pm)."

"That makes sense," I said to Mike as we started the three-mile walk to Barceloneta. "If people are going to be swinging torches around, being next to a large body of water is probably a good idea."

We were shuffling through the jumble of people on Las Ramblas when the pounding of drums caught our attention. The crowd around us parted as a mini parade approached. Six or seven bands, each having between 20 and 30 members, strutted down the street. One band member carried his group’s flag, about half of them played drums, horns or tambourines, and the others just marched and clapped.  Many wore hoodies, and some had horns poking out of the hoods. Each band seemed to have its own devil theme going. We, and everyone around us, stopped to watch their antics.

 Swallowed up by the crowd after the devil bands passed us, we pushed ourselves the remaining way to Barceloneta.  Once we arrived, we stood on a boardwalk overlooking the beach.  Hundreds of people milled around us, and twice as many lounged on the beach.

"I guess the guys will run down the beach," I said to Mike.  I just knew, however, that we were in the wrong place. There were no torches, and there was really nowhere anyone holding one could hide.

Suddenly, the lights went off, and a man boomed an announcement in Catalan over the sound system.  The only word I understood was “Portugal,” so when he started to repeat his speech in Spanish, I was happy. He went on and on about the celebrations of la Mercè and ended by telling us that Portugal was sponsoring that night’s fuegos artificiales . . . fireworks.  I wanted to kick myself.

"Well," I said to Mike after the fireworks show, "I guess I really don’t even know what we’re looking for.  I should have written down the information two months ago."  We walked back  to the hotel slowly.

We were probably five or six blocks from Las Ramblas when we heard drumming and screaming, and the stinging stench of sulphur and smoke reached our nostrils.

"They must be shooting off fireworks here, too," Mike said.

Little did we know....

Next time:  Playing With Fire, II

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Towering Above...

"Every age, every culture, every custom and
tradition has its own character, its own weaknesses
and strengths, its own beauties and ugliness..."
~Hermann Hesse

 When last I wrote, I mentioned that Mike and I had walked through the Boquería our Saturday afternoon in Barcelona. What I didn't mention is that prior to going there, we watched the castellars. If you've looked at the photos, you probably have guesses that castellars are people who form castells (castle).  The plaza was wall-to-wall people who were there to watch the teams build the towers, and we pushed as close as we could to get near them. 

The castellars have roots in 18th-century Catalunya, and while it has spread to other areas, it remains most popular in that province. The teams always wear white pants and black sashes, but each team wears a different shirt color. The sashes are the most important part of the uniform because they not only support the castellars' backs but also serve as a hand or foothold for those climbing higher. Some castellars wear bandanas (See photo below.), and only the child who tops the castell wears a helmet.  (Yes, a child climbs to the top.  See the photo above, and you can see the girl climbing into place.)

The castellars build the tower in two movements. The first is formation of the base (pinya, which means bulk). There can be as many as a couple hundred people on this level because it is the one that gives strength and stability to the tower. Ironically, the level doesn't usually get much attention, but it is so important because besides giving the stability, it also serves as a cushion should the upper levels fall.

(Note: In none of these photos do you see the base layer. If you look at the second layer above, you can see hands of the pinya supporting them.)

The way the castellars build the tower depends on the number of layers, how many people per layer, and the rising.  Some of the forms require the succeeding layers to climb up the backs of the lower layers. (See photos below.)  Another way to build the tower is to pull the castellars up through the middle of each layer, a method that requires strength to hold and to yank up.

The top layer is usually a child.  Once the child reaches the top, he/she raises four fingers and climbs down the side opposite the side he/she climbed up.  The other layers shimmy down in order.  For the build to be successful, every movement must go smoothly.

There are, of course, times when things go wrong, and the towers do collapse before the last layers get up.  As I mentioned before, the pinya is important in these cases as they do provide a buffer for the falling people.  As a matter of fact, the team pictured here did fall in on themselves during a climb. When recovered, they successfully built a seven-level castell.

The tallest castell built the day we were there was eight layers high.  From what I remember, the record is 10 levels.  In addition to the castells with multiple people per layer, there are castells that are one person per level, two per level, three per level, etc.

If you are interested in seeing a great video of a castell, click here.  If you'd like to see a castell fail, click here.

Next time:  Fire!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My, What a Big Head You Have!

Capgrosso (Note the carrier's eyes)

“Only mystery makes us live. Only mystery.” 
Federico García Lorca

I'm telling this story out of order, but I guess you won't mind too much since, until I mentioned it, you probably had no idea it was out of order.  ;-)

Mariner gegants
At any rate, on the Saturday afternoon that we were in Barcelona, we went to the Boquería (the most wonderful market) for a bit before heading back to our hotel to rest.  Mike walked up a few steps and looked through an archway and found a large courtyard.  On the sidewalk surrounding the courtyard were gigantic figures.  Some were at least twice Mike's size (photo below), while others were more his size with over-sized heads (above).  We thought we'd stumbled on some type of museum of giants as I'd never read anything about giants.

No one was around, so we just walked around and took photos. (Side note: I used to take NewsHound, mascot of the TV staion where Mike worked at the time, with us on trips. He was quite taken with the smaller giants in Barcelona.) 

NewsHound and a caprosso

 Later that evening, we had dinner somewhere in the Barri Gòtic and headed back to the hotel.  As we got closer to Las Ramblas, we heard drums, music, and excitement. When we got to Ramblas, we found ourselves in the middle of a parade of the giants and the big-headed people. Being as the giants were so huge, we were quite amazed at how deftly the men carrying them danced down the street. It was quite a spectacle.

A pair of gegants (Note the carrier's face)

  "¡Vimos los gigantes! (We saw the giants!)" I told Alejandro, the night clerk as we walked past him to the elevators once back at our hotel.

"Gegants," he replied.

"¿Qué? (What?)" I asked.

"EEt ees no gigantes," he explained. "Een Català, ees gegants." Alejandro was helping me navigate the bridge between Spanish and Catalan. Considering he was Brazilian and that Portuguese was his first language, he was sometimes confused himself.  I wasn't going to attempt to tell him the big heads were in the parade, too.

Wild Boar Capgrosso
Interestingly, the origin of the gegants goes back to the Middle Ages.  In an attempt to teach the illiterate masses about God, the Catholic Church used them in theatrical presentations of the Bible and other church teachings.  The church also used capgrossos (big heads) in similar ways.  The original gegants represented the apostles, good (lions, eagles) and evil (devils, dragons).

The first mention of gegants in Barcelona is in a document written in the 15th century.  Today, there are 4,000 gegants in Catalunya and 7,000 more in Spain.  There are more than 85 other countries that have giants in their cultures.

In Catalunya, the gegants usually appear in pairs — one male and one female.  If you look at the photo of Mike with the two gegants, you'll see that the gegants are a fisherman and his wife who is holding a fish.  The gegants are quite expensive, costing upwards of €6000 ($7800) for one.

The gegants and capgrossos are an important part of the culture of Catalunya, and each village, town, even neighborhood has its own pair.  They make their appearance during major festivals, holidays, and celebrations. 

Next time: Towering Over Us...

Saturday, May 3, 2014


 "Everyone's got unfinished
business with Barcelona."
 Frank Lampard

The essay I wrote when applying for the MFA program at Murray State was about my first trip to Barcelona.  As you may or may not know, I majored in Spanish and English in college and lived in Mexico for a semester.  Spain, for some reason, was never on my radar. 

For our 30th anniversary in 2007, Mike suggested we do a repositioning cruise from Amsterdam to Barcelona.  Six months after that first suggestion, we were standing on Plaça Catalunya (main square in Barcelona) looking for our hotel since we'd decided to spend three extra days there.

As luck would have it, we were there during Festes de la Mercé, one of the largest festivals in both Barcelona and Catalunya (the province), and the streets were crowded with  revelers.  Crowds are not exactly my thing (as you might have guessed if you've read any of my blog), and I was quite anxious yanking luggage down a main street in the midst of a bunch of screaming people.  Luckily, we'd walked only a few blocks before we saw the hotel.

 La Mercé, as locals call the festival, is the grandest annual celebration in the city and province and honors the Virgen of Mercy, patron saint of Barcelona. The story is that the city suffered from a plague of locusts in 1687, and the residents prayed to the Virgen to deliver them from the pests.  She drove them out, and the city honored her with the festival.

While the actual feast day is 24 September, the festivities span a number of days. In addition to parades, concerts, dances, fireworks, food, and wine, La Mercé also includes the castellars, the gegants, capgrossos, and the correfoc.  The castellars are human towers (center photo), a Catalan tradition.  The gegants and capgrossos are paper maché  giants (photo below) and big heads.   The correfoc are "fire runners."  (I'll tell you more about these in the next few days.)

One of the reasons I was so happy to be finally going to Barcelona was because I speak Spanish.  Castilian Spanish (castellaño) differs from the Spanish I learn/speak in much the same way as British English differs from American English.  What I didn't stop to think until long after I arranged the trip was the fact that the residents of Barcelona do not speak even castellaño.  They speak Catalan.  If you look at the foreign words in this blog, you'll notice that the words are not Spanish.  Oops.

When Franco was dictator of Spain, he forbid all of the provinces from speaking their languages and required everyone to speak castellaño.  Anyone who broke that law and got caught was thrown in jail.  Castellaño is still the lispy national language of Spain, but since Franco's death in the 70s, Spaniards have been permitted to once again speak their own languages.  Catalunya actually requires all business and government documents to be in both castellaño and catalano.

Confused? Just wait.

 Speaking of language (What a segue!)....  If you ever watched Seinfeld, you might remember the Soup Nazi episode where Newman sniffs his soup and skip-hops down the street while sing-songing, "Jam-ba-LY-a."    That's how I refer to this wonderful city.  All together now:   Bar-the-LOW-na!

Tomorrow:  Gegants & capgrossos

Friday, May 2, 2014

Full of Bologna

Bologna is the best city in Italy for food and 
has the least number of tourists. 
With its medieval beauty, it has it all.
~ Mario Batali

I've made a mistake every time we've gone to Italy. The first few times, I avoided Bologna because I thought it had not much to offer.  Last year, we spent five days there only because the flight home from Bologna was more affordable and more convenient, and those five days proved to me that I was very wrong about that charming city.

Everyone I know (and many I don't) who has gone there raves about the food in Bologna.  I have to agree that Bolognese food is good, but I prefer Abruzzese food.  There are some subtle differences in sauces and pastas and some big differences in the offerings.  I guess what I'm saying is that the food was not my reason for liking Bologna.

What it comes down to is that Bologna does, indeed, have a simple beauty that we didn't find in other large cities. Yes, Rome, Florence, Venice, Turin, and Milan are beautiful cities. They remind me of a rich great-aunt whom one sees every five years. She dresses in white lace and black velvet, drips in gold, exudes lilac or old rose from every pore, and proffers her cheek for a peck so we don't smudge her lipstick.

Bologna, though, is more the loving grandmother who wears a plain cotton dress and apron, smells of Ivory soap, envelopes us in her arms each time she sees us, and smears lipstick on our cheeks when she kisses us. She is down-to-earth. Warm. Inviting.

I'm thinking about spending time in Bologna in late summer or fall. I was comfortable there, and I know the guy who owns the apartment where we stayed last year.   Because Bologna has a good central location, I can easily take the train to Florence, Venice, Milan, and many other cities for a day.  I know where the markets are, where the coffee shops are, where the library is, where the great gelato is, where the terriers play.  (The last two are, of course, the most important.)

I'll see... I'm still considering everything at this point.

Bologna is the best city in Italy for food and has the least number of tourists. With its medieval beauty, it has it all.
Bologna is the best city in Italy for food and has the least number of tourists. With its medieval beauty, it has it all.